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Tech & Innovation | October 26, 2015

Last week, I put my phone in the washing machine.

Two minutes later, after the frantic full-body pat down we give ourselves when a phone’s location is in question, I realized. I sped down the hallway in slippers and grabbed my roommate, who made the swift decision to unplug the washing machine.

I anticipated the opening, the moment of relief, except there wasn’t one. Washing machines lock mid-cycle. We called Tufts Facilities, who said they couldn’t help us while they audibly laughed into the phone, and then we called the washing machine company.

The woman in Dallas on the other end of the line told me she would send help, and it came, two days later. By then my phone was ice cold, waterlogged to the point that you could see a drop of Hodgdon washing machine water beneath the camera lens.

“I’ve never seen this before,” said the man whose job it is to unlock washing machines.

He had never seen a phone in a washing machine before, but in my two days of waiting, I had experienced a loss familiar to many college students. Our phones connect us to our world—a new world, where our loved ones are never more than a touch, a snap, or a press away. For college students and millennials, phones allow relationships to last and strengthen over distance, and thus we become bound to them. The loss of my world caused actual, physical pain.

As I was thinking about the ways in which our phones enable us to maintain connections, I started to consider a group of people whose relationships are even more dependent on developing technology. Modern refugees from war-torn areas of the world such as Syria, Colombia, Iraq, the Congo, and Afghanistan are becoming increasingly dependent on cell phones. With over 50 million people displaced globally, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this group of consumers and their unique needs represent a significant and growing part of the human population. Their interactions with cell phones, then, highlight both the universal aspects and the disparities or inequalities in our human struggle for safety and love.

Often, refugees departing their home countries will acquire a cell phone and then acquire a SIM card as soon as they enter a new country. Using their phones, refugees are able to access networks of assistance, mostly through Facebook, where other refugees will post and update safe routes, transportation, and shelter. Also, through Facebook, refugees can access and contract smuggling groups who will bring them into Europe with their consent. These groups’ Facebook pages often boast bold names like “Smuggling into EU,” according to the New York Times. And on most phones, refugees can access a navigation system to figure out how to get where they hope to go next.

These resources can be determinants of a refugee’s success in reaching the safe places they want to go, but a cell phone can also become a refugee’s world—a new world defined by technology, where refugees can use their phones to maintain relationships, but from a distance. Though they may have a camera roll of familiar faces, their everyday lives may only contain the faces of strangers. For many refugees, phones allow relationships to exist at all.

Meghan Quill, a co-leader of the Tufts University Refugee Assistance Program (TU-RAP) told the Tufts Observer, “We work with people who may not have seen their families in many years.” TU-RAP is an organization that connects small groups of Tufts undergraduate and Fletcher students with resettled refugee families in the Boston area. The students provide social support and other assistance as needed.

“We’re just doing what we can…with what we have,” said another co-leader, Cate Klepacki. She is going this week to visit a family she once worked with, demonstrating the real, lasting, and impactful connection TU-RAP members and refugees can form.

Through these interactions, the significance of technology in refugees’ lives, even once resettled, has become clear to Quill and Klepacki. Refugees use their phones to contact the people they left at home, to find out how they are and how the neighborhood is doing, as well as to keep in touch with family members who could be “anywhere in the world,” said Quill.

And if a refugee loses the contact they become accustomed to, said Quill, the grief and isolation can be devastating. For a refugee still on the move, a lost phone could mean a lost cause, with few means of navigation or connection to networks. For a resettled refugee, Quill said, “imagine calling home and the other line never picks up. You have no way of knowing what happened.”

The panic after losing the ability to reach loved ones unites us across lives. For everyone, college student or refugee or both, technology forms a bridge between us and the people that we cannot physically be with.

However, this pain is one of many connections between Westerners and refugees that Westerners sometimes overlook. When a picture of one Syrian refugee taking a selfie surfaced online—she looks exhausted, and in the background of the photo is the dingy she just got off—some Westerners made it clear on Twitter that their definition of “refugee” did not include someone who could afford a phone. These statements forget that this woman was just one person and not representative of all refugees, especially not most of the refugees who are resettled in the US. Similarly, a Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) segment in which Americans could call in and question the former Deputy of Homeland Security revealed some public discontent with a perceived “cushy” resettlement program for refugees.

According to the 1951 definition, refugees are people who have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” due to some part of their identity and leave the country because of it. The US definition of a refugee expands this one to include people who are still within their countries with fear of persecution based on identity.

Neither of these definitions contains a socioeconomic standard. Therefore, not only do many refugees deserve the safety and love a phone provides, but also many refugees can afford them—further defying the white, Western stereotype of a refugee.

The double-bind imposed by this desire, that refugees have to look like they need help in order to get it, overlooks the universal humanity we share with refugees. At the same time, though, it recognizes how much luckier most of us at Tufts are to live in a safe place with easy access to the people we love. I lost my phone for a week, and I was fine. I had a computer to text or Facebook message with in the meantime, and my parents paid for a new iPhone 5s. My parents are also only 300 miles away, safe in the suburbs. That’s the thing about being a white student at Tufts University who grew up comfortably—I am always fine. I even have the privilege of disliking my phone, now, as it feels like a burden, having to keep in touch with my loved ones all the time. For refugees, this love must feel that much more vital, and the fear of losing a phone and the love that comes with it that much more threatening.